“One Is Not Born a Dramatist”

The Genesis of Sartre’s Theatrical Career in Writings to, with, and by Beauvoir

in Sartre Studies International
Dennis A. Gilbert University of Boston dennis.gilbert@umb.edu

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This article looks to delineate Jean-Paul Sartre’s entry into the field of drama and the genesis of his prominent theatrical career. While Sartre spoke and wrote a great deal on this subject in interviews with theater critics and articles on theater, the most revealing sources of this information can be found in writings to, with, and by Simone de Beauvoir. This article therefore examines the exchange of letters between Sartre and Beauvoir, her wartime diary, an article and a recording by her from the 1940s, her autobiography, and the lengthy conversations between the two from 1974. The result will shed significant light on the evolution of Sartre’s interest in theater from his childhood, to his adolescence, and during the decade that preceded the creation of his first extant play, Bariona, in 1940.

One of the principal themes of Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography, The Words (1963), is an understanding of his vocation as a writer during his childhood, adolescence, and, I would add, through the publication of his first novel, Nausea (1938). This work of self-reflection, admittedly written at a considerable distance from the events related, highlights his obsession with the imaginary, certainly part of his experience and culture at the time. It also stresses a fundamental priority in Sartre’s early life, that is, to create literary works of art for posterity and not to write for one’s own time or to be read necessarily by one’s contemporaries. It is this formative period and this notion of literature as a means of salvation that Sartre criticizes in The Words.

While the examples given in “Reading” suggest that the eventual nature of Sartre’s “Writing” would be narrative prose, references to theater and the use of theatrical terms are not at all absent from this autobiography. The problem, however, is that, when referenced, the genre is presented in a doubly negative light. First, the “family comedy” of Sartre’s childhood exemplifies his view at the time of theater as a way to falsify the real world, to play a role, to act out someone else’s life, and therefore to become separated from the activities of other children his own age: “I was a fake child … . Play-acting robbed me of the world and of human beings. I saw only roles and props. Serving the activities of adults in a spirit of buffoonery, … I squandered myself coldly in order to charm them. They were my audience.”1 Second, the theater suffers by comparison with Sartre’s youthful experiences at the movies; the two genres are caught in a conflict of generations that further alienates Sartre from the stage: “The social hierarchy of the theatre had given my grandfather and late father … a taste for the ceremonial … . The movies proved the opposite. This mingled audience seemed united by a catastrophe rather than a festivity. Etiquette, now dead, revealed the true bond among men: adhesion. I developed a dislike for ceremonies.”2 All of this raises the important question that preoccupies us here: How and under what circumstances did Sartre’s opinion of theater change so as to attract him to a career in dramatic writing and theatrical performance?

This vast subject, the genesis of Sartre’s theatrical career, exceeds the limitations of this article. In the pages that follow, I focus only on the most revealing sources of this information, namely writings to, with, and by Simone de Beauvoir. In this regard, I will look at the exchange of letters between Sartre and Beauvoir, her wartime diary, an article and a recording by Beauvoir from the 1940s in which she presents Sartre’s theater to an American audience, her own autobiography, and, finally, the lengthy conversations between the two that took place in 1974. The result will shed significant light on the evolution of Sartre’s interest in theater from his childhood (1905–1920), to his adolescence (1920–1930), and, most importantly, during the decade (1930–1940) that immediately preceded the creation of his first extant play, Bariona, in the fall of 1940.

To begin, for almost twenty years our understanding of the role that theater played during Sartre’s childhood was based on the negative portrayal of the genre in The Words. In 1983, however, Sartre’s War Diaries from 1939 to 1940 appeared in French, which were in part a particular revelation about his theatrical experiences as a youth.3 In “Notebook 12” from February 1940, we learn, for example, that his reading at age eight of a popular work, Monsieur le vent et Madame la pluie, inspired him to write brief scenes to be performed in public. These imaginary sketches for puppets (pièces pour marionnettes) are recalled fondly by Sartre in these pages and lead to an interesting contrast between these wooden beings and the contingencies of real life.4 So, while Sartre will use the cinema in The Words to illustrate his introduction to the necessities of esthetic experience, it is evident from The War Diaries that the theater also played an important part in his youthful understanding of the powers of the imagination.

The significance of these remarks was highlighted a few years later in 1986 by Philippe Lejeune in a well-documented article, “Les Souvenirs de lectures d’enfance de Sartre.”5 In this study, Lejeune analyzes the distinction between the events undergone by Sartre as a child and his memory of them as an adult and as a writer of those events.6 Here we are reminded that, while they provide a positive memory for Sartre in 1940, they do not appear at all in The Words. Moreover, Lejeune comments on the avant-textes to the autobiography dating from the 1950s that were surfacing shortly after Sartre’s death in 1980 and that still contained references to those successful pièces pour marionnettes.7 Clearly, then, Sartre did not just forget about those episodes but rather deleted them intentionally from the final version of his childhood narrative. Perhaps, as Lejeune suggests, this omission was done because those early theatrical successes represented tenets of the pre-1940 Sartre that he was refusing in 1963.8

The publication of The War Diaries and the subsequent commentary by Lejeune certainly provided a surprising perspective on the role that theater did actually play during Sartre’s childhood. However, in two earlier instances, Simone de Beauvoir had already called our attention to these performances and how they influenced Sartre’s change of thinking with regard to the genre, even at this early age. In an article from 1946, originally published for an American audience as “Jean-Paul Sartre: Strictly Personal,”9 Beauvoir is the first to mention the pièces pour marionnettes within the context of the importance of the imaginary for the young Sartre: “As a school child, … he delighted in inventing complicated and mysterious adventures on his own, whether he was acting out his own plays in a little puppet theater in Luxembourg Gardens or covering pages of paper with his writing.”10 It is understandable that such a brief, passing reference would be overlooked, considering it appeared during the early postwar period when Sartre was just beginning to establish himself as a dramatist and it would be years before he would undertake the critique of his childhood in The Words. Still, when the article was retranslated into French and republished in 1979,11 the theatrical reference in question was largely ignored, even though it cast dubious light on the completeness of Sartre’s autobiographical narrative.

And then in the Conversations with Jean-Paul Sartre from 1974, Beauvoir asks Sartre directly about the genesis of his dramatic career, “How do you explain your coming to write plays, and how important has it been for you?”12 In his response, Sartre does not hesitate to recall his childhood public performances, “I’d always thought I would take to it. When I was a little boy of eight and I played in the Luxembourg Gardens I used to put on those puppets you wear like gloves and make them act.”13 However, later in the Conversations, Sartre returns to this subject to underscore the important connection between these theatrical performances and his early sexual experiences:

In Paris I had a puppet show made up of several little characters that fitted over one’s hand. I used to carry it to the Luxembourg Gardens, slip my hand into the characters, settle myself behind a chair, and contrive a stage on which I made my characters act. My audience was female—little girls of the neighborhood who came there in the afternoons. Naturally, I cast my choice on this one or on that. This didn’t last even until I was nine. More like seven or eight.14

These particular recollections of theatrical performances for other children are therefore significant for two principal reasons. First, they undermine Sartre’s negative portrayal of theater in The Words by emphasizing the successful public and social nature of these events. Second, published in French in 1981, they expand on Beauvoir’s brief reference from 1946 and alert the reader to a very different childhood relationship with theater on Sartre’s part, one that will garner even more attention with the publication of The War Diaries in 1983.

Finally, Beauvoir inquires in the Conversations about the transition from the attraction of sketch performance to the task of more extended dramatic writing, “But did you go back to the idea of writing plays?”15 Sartre’s reply focuses on his attempts at the operetta form from 1917 to 1920: “Oh, yes. I wrote parodies and operettas. I discovered the operetta at La Rochelle, where I used to go to the municipal theater with my school friends, and under its influence I began one myself, ‘Horatius Coclès.’” Besides this Roman general, Sartre also wrote at this time on another one, Mucius Scaevola, from which he admittedly remembered little. As he admits to Beauvoir, “I remember two lines: ‘I’m Mucius Scaevola, and I stand here / I’m Mucius, Mucius, and that is clear.’”16 As we can see from these remarks by and with Beauvoir, Sartre’s childhood was not at all devoid of positive theatrical experiences, the genesis of which lay in the seduction of performance.

The period of Sartre’s adolescence has provided us with important examples of original fictional and nonfictional writing, published posthumously in 1990 as his Ecrits de jeunesse.17 A perusal of this collection, however, reveals no extant dramatic texts from those years; the principal works are for the most part unfinished narrative exercises written between 1923 and 1928. Still, Sartre would have been pleased with its contents for, as he explains to Beauvoir in the Conversations from 1974: “What one should really look at is the way I moved from the cloak-and-dagger tales to a realistic novel,”18 or as she then puts it, “from copying heroic stories to the making up of realistic ones.”19 This collection also contains two significant texts from 1924, “Apologie pour le cinéma”20 and the “Carnet Midy,”21 which focus in part on film and not on theater as the original inspiration for Sartre’s burgeoning esthetic ideas and their differences with the circumstances of real life. In the Conversations, he elaborates further: “I began thinking about [contingency] because of a film. I saw films in which there was no contingency and then when I left the cinema there I found contingency. It was therefore the necessity of the films that made me feel that there was no necessity in the street when I went out.”22

However, as we learn later in these Conversations with Beauvoir, Sartre’s adolescent years did in fact provide opportunities for theatrical activity, both in terms of literature and performance. As Sartre recalls, “I … wrote an act for an Ecole Normale revue. Every year there was a revue showing the principal [Gustave Lanson], his underlings, the pupils, and the parents. I wrote one act. The show was repulsively obscene.” But Sartre’s involvement in this annual event during his years at the Ecole Normale Supérieure also included performance for, in response to Beauvoir’s prompt, “And you acted in it too,” he adds. “I took the part of Lanson, the principal.”23 While one would have preferred a more extensive discussion here of Sartre’s collegiate performance career, Beauvoir does at least broach a subject that, at the time, had received scant attention. Some years later, in her massive biography of Sartre, Annie Cohen-Solal provided subsequent details with regard to his subversive stage antics during those years. In particular, she highlights the performances from 1925, “La Revue des deux mondes, ou le désastre de Lang-son,” and from 1926, “A l’ombre des jeunes billes en fleur.” According to Cohen-Solal, Sartre displayed in these shows a real talent for acting, singing, and playing the piano, but he also demonstrated a sharp critical edge that openly satirized both the administration and the curriculum of the Ecole Normale Supérieure.24

Furthermore, despite the absence of published dramatic texts from these adolescent years, Sartre did indeed try his hand at writing plays, two of which he describes in the Conversations. First, “At the Ecole Normale, I wrote a one-act play called ‘J’aurai un bel enterrement.’ It was a comic piece about a fellow who describes his death agony.” And then, “I wrote a play that was called ‘Epiméthée’ [a Titan], I think. The gods came into a Greek village that they meant to punish, and in this village there were poets, story-tellers, and artists. In the end it was the birth of tragedy, and Prometheus [a fellow Titan] expelled the gods. After that he came to no good.” Perhaps Sartre never sought to publish these texts because, as he also relates to Beauvoir, “I thought the drama a somewhat inferior form of expression. That was how I looked upon it to begin with.”25 Still, it is entirely possible that these dramatic manuscripts might indeed surface at some point in the future, which would therefore allow us, as readers, a better opportunity to judge Sartre’s adolescent forays into dramatic writing. For the moment, though, we are left once again with the recognition of the positive effect that performance had on Sartre’s developing interest in the theatrical genre.

During the early 1930s, three influences played a significant role in the genesis of Sartre’s theatrical career. These influences—Simone Jollivet, Charles Dullin, and Sartre and Beauvoir’s visit to the theater festival at Oberammergau, Germany—are all highlighted by Beauvoir in the second volume of her autobiography, The Prime of Life.26 First, Sartre’s amorous relationship with Simone Jollivet, Camille in the autobiography, had preceded his meeting Beauvoir, but in the context of the 1930s, Jollivet began to forge a career in the theater thanks to Charles Dullin, one of the premier directors of the interwar years: “Dullin had developed her taste … . She took lessons at the Atelier drama school, and played bit parts.” However, this initial training quickly proved to be unsatisfactory, for “she did not feel she wanted to be an actress. … In any case, the interpretative function is always a secondary art-form, and she wanted to create. She hit on an ambitious solution to her problem: she would write plays, with parts in them specially tailored for her.”27 As a result, Jollivet’s influence on Sartre at the time was significant, in that “she amused him greatly with her revelations concerning the scandalous intrigue of the theatrical world … . She would also pass on Dullin’s ideas about production to him, and squash him with allusions to Spanish plays that he didn’t know.”28

And then in 1932, Jollivet introduced Sartre and Beauvoir to Dullin. As Beauvoir recalls, “Thanks to Camille, we became acquainted with Dullin, whom we found charming. He knew how to tell a story … . But when we questioned Dullin about his concepts of dramatic production, … he would … avoid answering our queries. I realized why when I saw him actually at work.” Dullin’s conception of theater was modern, antirealist, and most of all sensitive to the demands of each particular dramatist staged:

He did, indeed, have certain firm principles. He condemned realism, and would not pander to his audience with cheaply sentimental stage lighting or … other facile tricks … . But when he set about a play himself he did not begin with any a priori theory; he preferred to adapt his mise en scène to the individual art of each successive author. He did not, for instance, treat Shakespeare as though he were Pirandello.29

For Sartre and Beauvoir, this approach was a refreshing change from the theatrical fare that dominated these interwar years and had provoked the following earlier criticism from Beauvoir: “As for the theater, we were discouraged by the general low standard of drama, and seldom went to a play.”30 Thanks to Jollivet’s intervention, Sartre and Beauvoir began to take a keen interest in Dullin’s creative work with regard to theatrical performance: “It was pointless to question him in vacuo: the thing was to watch him working. He let us sit in on several rehearsals of Richard III, and gave us the surprise of our life.”31

Finally, in 1934, Sartre and Beauvoir attended the performance of The Passion at Oberammergau, just in time for the three-hundredth anniversary of the event: “Dullin and Camille, backed by general public opinion, had most strongly advised us to see the celebrated Passion Play at Oberammergau. … The village had been struck by plague in 1633, and it was in 1634 … that the inhabitants had for the first time solemnly acted out the death of Jesus.”32 In the village, Sartre and Beauvoir admired both the extension of the play into the lives of the people, “the façades [of the houses] were a riot of carved flowers and animals, with volutes, garland motifs, and trompe-l’oeil windows,” and the willingness of these people, “the actors themselves, who had been busy for years rehearsing their parts in the Passion Play,” to perpetuate this theatrical tradition.33 Most of all, though, they were struck by the event, by the performance, by the theatricality of the experience:

We had little taste for displays of traditional folk-culture, but the Oberammergau Passion Play was great theater. … The stage was both wide and deep enough to make vast crowd scenes possible … . Scenes of action alternated with dumb, motionless tableaux vivants. A women’s choir provided a commentary on the drama, to the accompaniment of some extremely pleasant seventeenth-century music … . As for the style of acting, it would have delighted Dullin’s heart, so sinewy and competent was it: the cast achieved a kind of truthfulness which had nothing to do with realism.34

With the increasing threat of war at the end of the 1930s, Sartre soon found himself mobilized during the drôle de guerre, or “phony war.” We have learned a great deal about his activities during those nine months from The War Diaries but also from the letters he wrote to Beauvoir on almost a daily basis, published as well in 1983. At the time of his mobilization, Sartre enjoyed a certain degree of success from his first novel, Nausea, and a collection of short stories, The Wall. Much critical attention has therefore been paid to the discussion in these letters of his subsequent narrative projects, The Age of Reason and The Reprieve, and his preliminary philosophical notions that would eventually become Being and Nothingness. Overlooked, though, are Sartre’s remarks concerning the details of his increasing desire to try his hand once again at writing for the theater.

These theatrical references appear in Sartre’s letters as early as the fall of 1939 and reappear from time to time through the winter of 1940. So, even though the historical force of circumstances and his other writerly projects (novels, diaries, philosophical sketches) had already begun to preoccupy him during the drôle de guerre, the memory of his introduction to the world of contemporary theater fuels his determination to embark on a dramatic career, as he first writes to Beauvoir in November 1939, “Above all now I’m dying to write a play. If I do, you’ll just take it to Toulouse [Jollivet] and Dullin,”35 and then again in January 1940, “I’m touching up the novel [The Age of Reason]—the ending—and I’m getting a little sick of it. I’m beginning to feel the old hankering to write a play.”36 What Sartre quickly realizes is that a suitable dramatic topic is difficult to find—“This afternoon I mused at length upon a play. … The subject, properly speaking, wouldn’t come”37—even if one has a certain talent for fictional language. He even proposes to write a volume of literary criticism that would contain dialogue and discussion. As a result, “by writing the dialogue I’m proving I can do excellent stage dialogue. I have the feel for this dialogue,” but, once again, “I lack only a subject.”38 Sartre settles eventually on two related themes: violence—“I wanted a city under siege, pograms, who knows what else. … So I returned to my plan of writing a large-scale play with blood, rape, and massacres”39—and, again, Greek mythology—“All day long I’ve been daydreaming about a topic for a play. … Everything was contemplated but nothing stuck … . Nothing at all. I wrote a scene for ‘Prometheus’ and tore it up”40—both of which, as we know, will figure prominently in his future theatrical canon. Therefore, as the drôle de guerre becomes a more serious reality, we encounter in March 1940 a Sartre who, while immersed in other more successful writerly projects, still considers a theatrical career to be a viable possibility: “Basically I’m itching to learn my limits—which involve drama and poetry. For poetry, I’ve lost all hope, but for theater I still have some. And that’s where I am.”41

Shortly thereafter, in June 1940, Sartre was taken prisoner by the Germans and was relocated that fall to a prison camp, Stalag 12D, in Trier. Despite these dire circumstances, he was soon able to reestablish his correspondence with Beauvoir, and through these letters we learn about the evolving conditions that led to the creation of his first extant play, Bariona.42 Sartre first presents the general background to his current situation in the camp as of October 1940, emphasizing his active role in both the writing and the performance of theater before an audience on a regular basis: “I’m in a camp at the top of a hill, at first I was on the infirmary staff, then I became ‘an artist’; I write plays which I produce and which are given on Sundays.”43 This reference is the only one to appear from the early fall of 1940 in these letters. Sartre does provide Beauvoir with additional information regarding the initial progress of his dramatic craft at this time, but that actual letter has been lost. Luckily for us, though, Beauvoir saw fit to rewrite at least a part of it in her own Wartime Diary. Here we can note both the importance of the communal artistic experience for Sartre in the camp and a curious reference to a previously unknown dramatic project: “I’ve found a cushy job here. … I enrolled in the Artists, a group of about thirty singers and musicians who perform in the camp to entertain their comrades. … I’m writing and staging sketches for them. We’re very well regarded. Sunday, they’re putting on a detective play by me, and that’ll be my theatrical debut.”44

But it is in a lengthy subsequent letter to Beauvoir, dating probably from late November or early December of 1940, that Sartre begins to outline his total involvement in the subject matter that will become his mystère de Noël, Bariona: “I want you to know that I’m working my first serious play, and putting all of me into it (writing, directing, and acting), and it’s about the Nativity.”45 An important aspect of this large project relates to the reaction of his cast as they rehearse in preparation for its unique opening night; it is clear here that Sartre once again remembers and is encouraged by his favorable theatrical experiences from some years earlier: “But take it from me, I really do have talent as a playwright. I wrote a scene of the angel announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds that absolutely took everyone’s breath away. Tell that to Dullin, and that some had tears in their eyes. I recall what he was like when he directed, and I draw my inspiration from him.”46 At the end of this letter, Sartre identifies his play, while also in true medieval fashion emphasizing his active participation in the lighter side of theater: “It will be given on December 24th, with masks, there’ll be 60 characters, and it’s called Bariona, or the Son of Thunder. Last Sunday I also acted onstage, with a mask, a comic role in a farce. I get lots of fun out of it all, thanks to loads of other farces funnier still. After this, I will write more plays.”47

Finally, in his last letter on the subject from early December 1940, Sartre explains to Beauvoir why the theater has become an important part of his writing project: “Imagine what it must be like for a writer to know his entire audience and to write specifically for that audience—and for a playwright to put on and act in his own plays.” It is quite possible here that Sartre is finding the theatrical world of the prison camp to resemble his other past experiences on stage, at least at the Ecole Normale Supérieure if not in the Luxembourg Gardens as well. With so much time on his hands, he can explore in Bariona all facets of the creative process (writer, director, actor), which allow for the possibility of an exciting new addendum to his career path moving forward: “I wrote a Christmas mystery play which is apparently very moving, so much so that the actors are moved to tears as they play their parts. As for me, I play the role of the Magus king. I write the play in the morning and we rehearse in the afternoon. … I’m discovering a totally new form of theatrical art in which a lot can be done.”48

For her part, Beauvoir only responds twice to Sartre’s letters regarding his work on theater. Still, her remarks are not without interest. On the one hand, in mid-December 1940, she expresses satisfaction that Sartre has taken so well to theatrical expression and that, as a result, he will surely be considered an even more significant writer once the war is over: “Yesterday I found your little letter, which filled my heart with joy: I’d like some details of this new theatrical art and your work. I think it’s a new string to your bow for good now, and that you’ll be working relentlessly for the theatre on your return.”49 On the other hand, later that month, she expresses regret at his absence, and, because of the ephemeral nature of theatrical performance, she realizes she will not be there to share in his first major production: “So they’re going to stage your Christmas mystery-play, are they? [I]n fact, they’ll already have done so by the time you get this note, but I shan’t see it. It does make me bitter at times … to think of you without me.”50 But Beauvoir’s most prominent contributions to our understanding of Bariona as the culmination of the genesis of Sartre’s theatrical career were to come later, in Existentialist Theater, The Prime of Life, and the Conversations with Jean-Paul Sartre. In these critical texts, Beauvoir essentially creates and reinforces the narrative that will govern the future interpretation of the play, not put into widespread distribution until 1970.

In the spring of 1947, while in New York City lecturing on existentialism, Beauvoir records Existentialist Theater as a practical device to present Sartre’s major ideas to an American audience.51 For this purpose, she opts to concentrate on his two principal plays to date, The Flies (1943) and No Exit (1944), in order to arrive only afterward at a working definition of existentialist theater.52 Beauvoir does not proceed directly though to a discussion of The Flies but rather concedes that in fact this play was not the first one written by Sartre and that his initial serious theatrical experience had actually occurred some years earlier within the confines of the prison camp in which he had been held during the war. Although she does not name the earlier play in question, which we now know to be Bariona, she does provide important thematic details that help us to understand the context of Sartre’s entry into the practice of writing for the stage.

Beauvoir’s postwar narrative regarding Bariona focuses on two interconnected points: the play as a form of resistance and as an example of situated theater. The subject of the Nativity, performed at Christmas, provided Sartre with the theatrical distance necessary “to communicate a bit of hope and some of his ideas to his comrades, despite the surveillance and the censures that surrounded any attempt.” This surprising religious context, then,

allowed him to represent the drama of the Occupation in France in a very transparent manner since he had conceived his subject in the following way: he described Judea occupied by the Romans, the temptations of despair and collaboration that there were in this little country crushed by an immense power, and yet a part of the population had the will to affirm their resistance.

In addition, according to Beauvoir, the circumstances of the performance created a tangible bond between Sartre and his audience who “were all prisoners united by the same situation, coming to listen to what one of their own had to say to them.” The result was that the spectacle of Bariona enabled Sartre to begin to understand the true nature of literature in general and dramatic literature in particular: “that it was not simply a distraction, an escape or even a contemplation of certain eternal truths, but that it was truly an action and must be situated in time, in space, and in concrete situations.”53

This dual narrative appears for the second time in The Prime of Life from 1960, once again in advance of the publication of Bariona. Beauvoir introduces the discussion of the play by simply describing Sartre’s overall situation in the prison camp: “He was very contented with his lot, and extremely busy. He had been having discussions with some Jesuits … . He was banking on a fairly quick return to Paris, but not right away, since he was rehearsing a play he’d written for Christmas.”54 Later in the text, following Sartre’s return from captivity, Beauvoir emphasizes once again the dual importance of Bariona. First, the play represents Sartre’s intellectual resistance: “He had written and produced a play in the stalag, called Bariona: ostensibly the theme of this ‘mystery play’ was the birth of Christ, but in fact the drama centered on the Roman occupation of Palestine, and his fellow prisoners were quick to take the allusion. What they applauded on Christmas Eve was Resistance propaganda.”55 Second, this theatrical experience enabled Sartre to reach a real public and to communicate directly with an engaged audience:

The real function of the theater, Sartre thought at the time, was to appeal to those who share a common predicament with the playwright. This “common predicament” was one that faced Frenchmen everywhere, assailed daily as they were by German and Vichy propaganda exhorting them to repent and submit; the theater might provide a medium through which to remind them of rebellion and freedom.56

So, as we can see, the interpretive narrative for Bariona, as a result of Beauvoir’s critical intervention, was now solidly in place a decade before the play became generally available.

Finally, Beauvoir broaches the subject of Bariona for the third time in the Conversations from 1974. Sartre responds to her prompt by explaining the now-familiar circumstances that led to the creation of the play:

When I was a prisoner of war I belonged to a group who put on plays in a large barn every Sunday. We made the sets ourselves, and since I was an intellectual who wrote, they asked me to provide a play at Christmas. I turned out Bariona, which was thoroughly bad but which did have a dramatic idea. In any event it was that which gave me a liking for the theater.

Beauvoir seizes on Sartre’s response to underscore, once again, the theatrical message in question: “Bariona was committed drama. You used the pretext of the Roman occupation of Palestine to refer to France.” Sartre agrees with this interpretation and then adds, “Yes. The Germans didn’t understand that. They just saw it as a Christmas play. But the French prisoners got the point, and my play interested them.” So Beauvoir is now able to remind Sartre of the importance of his first audience: “It was what gave you such power—acting before an audience that was not made up of people from outside, as it is in bourgeois theaters.”57 Sartre ends this discussion by stressing the necessary connection in theater between the dramatist and this audience: “Yes, Bariona was acted before an audience that was involved. There were men there who would have stopped the play if they had understood it. But all the prisoners knew what it was about. It was real drama in that sense.”58 Therefore, Beauvoir utilized this moment in the Conversations to reinforce a particular interpretation of the play at a time when the published text was just beginning to receive critical attention.

To conclude, in this article I have briefly looked at the trajectory of Jean-Paul Sartre’s entry into the field of drama, the genesis of his theatrical career, through writings to, with, and by Simone de Beauvoir. I have noted that these writings are only part of the story, for Sartre also addressed this subject in his articles on theater and his interviews with theater critics and media personnel. Furthermore, I have emphasized the importance that performed theater had on attracting Sartre to write plays, even though, as he reveals in The Words, a theatrical career was not part of his original literary mandate.

In this regard, a pertinent anecdote appears in Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka’s introduction to their edited collection Sartre on Theater. As related to them by the actor Serge Reggiani, Sartre was having a drink with the cast of The Condemned of Altona some weeks after its successful opening in Paris in 1959. That night, he happened to have a copy of the play, which had just been published, and, displaying it, he exclaimed, “This is what really counts—the book!”59 It is possible that this remark was provoked by Sartre’s reaction to the loss of authorial authority that was beginning to surface in literary and dramatic criticism at that time, or he may have just forgotten his theatrical roots as I have outlined them here in these pages. In either case, I would argue, the future relevance of Sartre’s theater lies less in the canonical reading of No Exit, for example, than in the ambitious staging of this play and others before a new generation of spectators.

In France, there have been several such notable productions over the past thirty years: Robert Hossein’s Kean (1987); Claude Régy’s Huis clos (1990); Michel Raskine’s Huis clos (1994); Jean-Pierre Dravel’s Les Mains sales (1998); and Daniel Mesguich’s Le Diable et le Bon Dieu (2001). Over the same period in the United States, however, only Jerry Mouawad’s No Exit (2006) has earned high praise as a reinterpretation of the classic Sartrian conundrum.60 In fact, the two plays most preferred by Sartre and Beauvoir, The Devil and the Good Lord and The Condemned of Altona, have been and remain virtually invisible on American stages. The former has never enjoyed a major production in the United States, while the latter, after an auspicious run in New York City in 1966, has never since been reprised. But, as is well known, there is an abundance of relevant and timely issues in these two plays (war and remembrance, death and responsibility, history and legacy, just to name a few), which, if staged today, would continue to demonstrate Sartre’s enduring contention that “we write [and perform] for our own time.”61



Jean-Paul Sartre, The Words: The Autobiography of Jean-Paul Sartre, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Vintage, 1981), 84; translation modified slightly.


Ibid., 121.


Jean-Paul Sartre, The War Diaries of Jean-Paul Sartre: November 1939–March 1940, ed. Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre, trans. Quintin Hoare (New York: Pantheon, 1984).


Ibid., 263–264, in particular: “Like many children, I was sensitive to what is refined, inhuman, artificial and necessary about a play for puppets. It took me a long time to understand that one can find all the same features in the real theatre, if one doesn’t let oneself be diverted by a stupid realism.”


Philippe Lejeune, “Les Souvenirs de lectures d’enfance de Sartre,” in Lectures de Sartre, ed. Claude Burgelin (Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1986), 51–87.


Ibid., 61–66.


Ibid., 66. Years later, the full text to which Lejeune refers was published as Jean-Paul Sartre, “[Genèse d’une vocation d’écrivain],” in “Les Mots” et autres écrits autobiographiques, ed. Jean-François Louette, in collaboration with Gilles Philippe and Juliette Simont, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 2010), 1165–1172.


For an informed appraisal of and response to Lejeune’s remarks, see John Ireland, Sartre, un art déloyal: Théâtralité et engagement, Surfaces (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1994), 200–214.


Simone de Beauvoir, “Jean-Paul Sartre: Strictly Personal,” trans. Malcolm Cowley, Harper’s Bazaar, January 1946, 113, 158, 160.


Simone de Beauvoir, “Jean-Paul Sartre,” trans. Marybeth Timmermann, intro. Karen Vintges, in Philosophical Writings, ed. Margaret A. Simons, with Marybeth Timmermann and Mary Beth Mader, fwd. Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, Beauvoir Series 1 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 230. This particular translation is a more faithful reproduction of Beauvoir’s original French text.


Simone de Beauvoir, “Jean-Paul Sartre: Strictement personnel,” in Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, Les Ecrits de Simone de Beauvoir: La Vie, l’écriture, and in appendix, “Textes inédits ou retrouvés” (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), 332–336.


Simone de Beauvoir, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, trans. Patrick O’Brian (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 182. The Conversations follow Beauvoir’s recollections of Sartre’s last years and make up most of this publication.


Ibid., 182.


Ibid., 291.


Ibid., 182.


Ibid., 183 (this and the preceding quotation).


Jean-Paul Sartre, Ecrits de jeunesse, ed. Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, in collaboration with Michel Sicard for appendix 2 (Paris: Gallimard, 1990).


Beauvoir, Adieux, 134.


Ibid., 135.


Sartre, Ecrits de jeunesse, 388–404.


Ibid., 443–497.


Beauvoir, Adieux, 141; translation modified slightly.


Ibid., 183 (this and the preceding quotation).


Annie Cohen-Solal, Sartre: A Life, trans. Anna Cancogni, ed. Norman MacAfee (New York: Pantheon, 1987), 58–65. See also photos 19 and 20 that follow page 304 for Sartre in costume.


Beauvoir, Adieux, 183 (this and the preceding two quotations).


Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, trans. Peter Green (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1962).


Ibid., 60 (this and the preceding quotation). For an interesting and needed perspective on Jollivet’s development as a female dramatist, see Kenneth Krauss, “The Limits of Opportunism: Simone Jollivet’s The Princess of Ursins,” in The Drama of Fallen France: Reading “la Comédie sans Tickets” (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), 81–104, 224–228.


Beauvoir, Prime of Life, 61.


Ibid., 102 (this and the preceding quotation).


Ibid., 45.


Ibid., 102. Dullin would of course go on to direct Sartre’s first public play, The Flies, in 1943. In 1945, Beauvoir would defend Dullin against misguided Parisian theatrical criticism in her article “It’s Shakespeare They Don’t Like,” trans. Marybeth Timmermann, notes by Janella D. Moy and Marybeth Timmermann, intro. Elizabeth Fallaize, in “The Useless Mouths” and Other Literary Writings, ed. Margaret A. Simons and Marybeth Timmermann, fwd. Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, Beauvoir Series 4 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 91–101.


Beauvoir, Prime of Life, 157.


Ibid., 158.


Ibid.; translation modified slightly.


Jean-Paul Sartre, Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1926–1939, ed. Simone de Beauvoir, trans. Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992), 369.


Jean-Paul Sartre, Quiet Moments in a War: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1940–1963, ed. Simone de Beauvoir, trans. Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), 5.


Ibid., 21.


Ibid., 22.


Ibid., 21, 24.


Ibid., 28.


Ibid., 107.


For more than thirty years since its general dissemination in 1970, Sartre’s play had been known as Bariona, or the Son of Thunder (in The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Vol. 2: Selected Prose, ed. Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, trans. Richard McCleary, Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy [Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1974], 72–136). In 2005, though, based on the evidence of the actual handwritten manuscript, its full title was somewhat amended to Bariona, ou le jeu de la douleur et de l’espoir (in Théâtre complet, ed. Michel Contat, in collaboration with Jacques Deguy, Ingrid Galster, Geneviève Idt, John Ireland, Jacques Lecarme, Jean-François Louette, Gilles Phillippe, Michel Rybalka, and Sandra Teroni, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade [Paris: Gallimard, 2005], 1115–1179).


Sartre, Quiet Moments, 243.


Simone de Beauvoir, Wartime Diary, trans. and notes by Anne Deing Cordero, ed. Margaret A. Simons and Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, fwd. Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, Beauvoir Series 3 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 317.


Sartre, Quiet Moments, 244–245.


Ibid., 245. While Sartre does not explicitly reference his visit with Beauvoir to Oberammergau (as related by her above), the influence of that theatrical experience can still be noted here in the following points of comparison: Sartre’s curious interest in Christ’s life as the essential background for his first serious play; his emphasis on the communal artistic experience and total involvement of all participants; and his use of early Christian mythology in order to undermine any sense of realism and to create the necessary distance that allowed the play to be performed under difficult historical circumstances. Sartre more directly addresses these issues in his prefacing letter to the first limited edition of Bariona in 1962: “Though I took my subject from the mythology of Christianity, that does not mean that the trend of my thinking changed even for a moment when I was a prisoner of war. It was simply a matter, agreed on with my fellow-prisoner priests, of finding a subject most likely to appeal to both Christians and unbelievers that Christmas Eve.” Sartre on Theater, ed. Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, trans. Frank Jellinek (New York: Pantheon, 1976), 185.


Sartre, Quiet Moments, 245.


Ibid., 246 (this and the preceding quotation). For complementary information on the relation between Bariona and Sartre’s situation in the prison camp, see Marius Perrin, Avec Sartre au stalag 12D (Paris: Jean-Pierre Delarge, 1980), 91–102. For a more interpretive view of this relation, see Ingrid Galster, Le Théâtre de Jean-Paul Sartre devant ses premiers critiques, Oeuvres et Critiques (Tübingen: Gunter Narr; Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1986), 39–49. And for important details regarding the manuscript of the play and Bariona’s place in Sartre’s overall theatrical corpus, see John Ireland and Michel Rybalka, “Notice,” in Sartre, Théâtre complet, 1560–1567.


Simone de Beauvoir, Letters to Sartre, trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare, pref. Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir (New York: Arcade, 1992), 353.


Ibid., 355–356.


The only published version of this recording appears as Simone de Beauvoir, Existentialist Theater, transcribed by Sabine Crespo, trans. Marybeth Timmermann, intro. and notes by Dennis A. Gilbert, in “The Useless Mouths” and Other Literary Writings, 125–150. For a complete analysis of this little-known text, see Dennis A. Gilbert, “Simone de Beauvoir on Existentialist Theater,” Sartre Studies International 18, no. 2 (2012): 107–126. Some of the major themes from this article are reiterated here.


To a lesser extent, Beauvoir also introduces Albert Camus’s Caligula (published in 1944; first performed in 1945).


Beauvoir, Existentialist Theater, 138 (this and the preceding three quotations). Despite Beauvoir’s familiarity with the theatrical world of Paris in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as her growing interest in Sartre’s nascent production for theater and ideas on theater, her only authorial venture into the genre occurred in 1945 with The Useless Mouths. For the most part, this work has been neglected within the context of Beauvoir scholarship. However, a fresh introduction and new translation by Liz Stanley and Catherine Naji in 2011 have helped to correct this past negligence (in “The Useless Mouths” and Other Literary Writings, 9–87). Curiously, Beauvoir chooses not to discuss her own play in Existentialist Theater. Sartre, however, references it multiple times in his important statement on “the young playwrights of France,” “Forgers of Myths” (1946), stressing above all its importance as veiled commentary on recent historical events: “With Les Bouches inutiles, … criticism was not confined to discussing the story of the play, which was based on actual events that took place frequently in the Middle Ages: it recognized in the play a condemnation of fascist procedures.” Sartre on Theater, 40.


Beauvoir, Prime of Life, 374.


Ibid., 385–386.


Ibid., 386.


Beauvoir, Adieux, 183 (this and the preceding three quotations).


Ibid., 184.


Sartre, Sartre on Theater, viii; emphasis in original.


For complete details regarding these productions and other fresh approaches to this subject, see Dennis A. Gilbert, “Contemporary Perspectives on Sartre’s Theater,” in New Perspectives on Sartre, ed. Adrian Mirvish and Adrian Van den Hoven (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), 246–250.


Cf. Jean-Paul Sartre, “We Write for Our Own Time,” in Writings, 172–178.

Contributor Notes

Dennis A. Gilbert is a lecturer in French at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. His principal areas of scholarly interest include Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, dramatic theory, and literary criticism. His current writing project is entitled “Sartre’s Esthetic of Theater.”

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Sartre Studies International

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Existentialism and Contemporary Culture


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